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William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography.

Judith Anne Still, Michael J. Dabrishus, and Carolyn L. Quin. Westport: Greenwood P, 1996. 331 pp. $85.00.

Reviewed by

B. A. Nugent University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The significance of American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) has been gained and reaffirmed through decades of performances by musicians of the first rank and by the receptivity of audiences throughout the world. His compositions have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Tokyo Philharmonic, as well as the orchestras of numerous other cities. The roster of conductors who have performed Still's works includes Pierre Monteux, Antal Dorati, Sir John Barbirolli, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, Eric Leinsdorf, Leopold Stokowski, Artur Rodzinski, Sir Hamilton Hardy, Eugene Goossens, Guy Fraser Harrison, Howard Hanson, and Otto Klemperer. Artists who have performed his vocal and choral pieces include Robert Shaw, Todd Duncan, Carol Brice, Jerome Hines, and Florence Mills. Not unexpectedly, Still's discography is substantial.

Prior to earning his station of prominence in concert halls, William Grant Still developed his craft as an arranger and orchestrator for such notables as Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw, W. C. Handy, Bix Beiderbecke, Bing Crosby, Earl Carroll, and Sophie Tucker. His scores were heard "coast-to-coast" over an adolescent medium called radio on such programs as Deep River Hour, Old Gold Show, Maxwell House Coffee Show, and the Bell Telephone Hour. When his transition to the concert hall was, in his mind, less than complete, Still elected to compose under the pseudonym Willie M. Grant.

With the exception of uncompleted curricula at Wilberforce and Oberlin and brief periods of compositional study with George W. Chadwick and Edgard Varese, Still was, for the most part, self-taught. Like Edward Elgar and others, he learned to compose and orchestrate by playing several instruments and by experimenting with the combinations of sounds and colors available to him. He learned valuable lessons by playing violin, flute, violoncello, clarinet, and oboe in combos and orchestras such as that of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.

Although his ancestry included strains of Choctaw, Spanish, Scotch-Irish, and Negroid blood, and although his second marriage was to a Jew, William Grant Still was indeed the "Dean of Negro-American Composers." He was the first of his race to write successful symphonies, to conduct a major symphony orchestra, and to have an opera produced by a major company. His was the language of the African American. Most of his 173 compositions speak directly - sometimes simply - but eloquently and genuinely with voices that emanate from slavery and segregation, and they often employ the languages of the blues and the spiritual.

In addition to his compositions, Still left nearly 200 arrangements and orchestrations. His awards and honors were deservedly numerous, including several Guggenheim Fellowships and eight honorary doctorates from institutions such as Bates College, Howard University, Oberlin College, the University of Southern California, and the University of Arkansas.

William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography is, in the main, a referential compilation of Still's compositions, arrangements, orchestrations, discography, selected reviews, writings (including those with and by his wife Verna Arvey), and a general biography. The William Grant Still and Verna Arvey Papers archive, now at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, serves as the principal source for the compilations. Annotations are provided for "Works and Performances," "Writings of Still and Arvey," and "General Bibliography."

The book's main course is the section entitled "Works and Performances," which spans more than half of the volume's total pages. Here one finds an alphabetical listing of 173 compositions by Still that features concordant titles, dates and provenance, dedications, co-authors, movements, medium, instrumentation, autographic and holographic information, duration, first performance, selected performances, and a bibliography for each work (mostly excerpts from reviews).

After "Works and Performances," we find "Writings by William Grant Still and Verna Arvey," followed by a "General Bibliography," a "Discography," an alphabetical list of compositions (Appendix A), and a preliminary list of arrangements and orchestrations (Appendix B). The purpose of Appendix A, which like "Works and Performances" shows titles alphabetically, is to provide titles that were discarded, lost, replaced, or revised as well as those found in "Works and Performances." That Appendix B is a "preliminary list" signals that the list is incomplete; it does, however, name nearly 200 orchestrations and arrangements.

While the aforementioned sections offer valuable information for the scholar and performer interested in William Grant Still, several shortcomings suggest that diligent editorial control and coordination are wanting. Of minor concern is the peculiar order of the book's sections. Would it not have been more logical to follow "Works and Performances" with a listing of arrangements and orchestrations, then the discography? Also, if the book is to serve as a source to encourage performers and scholars, one wonders why a listing of works by genre was not included. Far more serious, however, are the deficiencies of the "Biographical Sketch."

After the book's first section, "A Personal Reminiscence of William Grant Still," written rather formally but ably and affectionately by his daughter Judith Anne Still, comes a "Biographical Sketch of William Grant Still" by Carolyn L. Quin. Unfortunately, this "Biographical Sketch" is too infrequently biographical, and when it is, there is too much duplication with Judith Still's "Personal Reminiscence." A biography, even a sketch, should draw the reader more closely to the life and person of the subject. After the first five or six pages, Quin elects to present, for the most part, a chronological account of Still's musical productivity, with only scant bits of biographical information appearing now and then. This regrettable decision brings the "Biographical Sketch" into further duplication and redundancy with the section "Works and Performances." While it is admittedly challenging to glean and compress diaristic notes into a sensible sketch that utilizes that which is most important and flows smoothly, there are, in the "Biographical Sketch," too many instances of faulty syntax. Sadly, this section is burdened with numerous flaws that a sharp, critical editor could have prevented, and which seriously depreciate the book.

The "Biographical Sketch" begins by telling us that "the life and career of William Grant Still (1895-1978) spanned an important period in the development of an American style of composed music" and that "he sought to create an American style in his music." One must ask: What is an American style? How does the inclusion of spirituals, elements of jazz, folk tunes, and harmonies and syncopated rhythms from indigenous peoples of the Americas, African Americans, Africans in the Caribbean, and Southerners make an American style? Does this mean that Dvorak, Stravinsky, Milhand, Paul Hindemith, and even Brahms, all of whom incorporated one or more elements of folk tunes, spirituals, jazz rhythms, or blues found in the United States, composed in an American style? Still is described as "seeking out qualities in all music that could be formulated into a uniquely American sound," whatever that means.

Another bothersome trait in the first pages of the "Biographical Sketch" is the overabundance of pronouns in several paragraphs (see 17:4 and 18:2). Occasionally this penchant for pronouns only adds to the reader's discomfort, as Quin abruptly switches subjects and thoughts. One cannot help but feel that the writer was at times unduly frantic in her efforts to include more information than the allotted space allows, the result of which is disconcerting. An example: "The performance was at Aeolian Hall, and it was the fourth season of the I[nternational] C[omposers] G[uild]" (21). The "Biographical Sketch" is also laced with careless sentences and phrases.

There are also claims for multiple premieres of the same work. We learn that Darker America "premiered in Aeolian Hall in New York on November 28, 1926," and in the next paragraph we are told that "in November of 1927, Darker America premiered in Rochester, New York." (The earlier date and place agree with the section "Works and Performances.") We read that Still's ballet Sahdji was premiered May 22, 1931, by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Howard Hanson. In the ensuing section, "Works and Performances," the orchestra is given as the Rochester Civic Orchestra.

By page 31, the diary and papers have brought us to the mid-1930s, when the notabilia include three Guggenheim Fellowships, some freelance work in movies, and the compositions Blue Steel, Dismal Swamp, Lenox Avenue, and others. We read that "the works for piano were also written during this time." Four pages and a few years hence we are told about another important set of piano pieces, and two pages later, we discover that Still finished a third important solo piano group in December of 1943. In truth, he continued writing for the piano at least into the 1960s.

If there is one who is slighted in both Judith Still's "Personal Reminiscence" and Quin's "Biographical Sketch," it is Verna Arvey. In "Works and Performances," we see that she contributed no less than seven librettos, five poems, seventeen texts, three narrations, and two scenarios to Still's compositions. Cited for forty-five performances, Arvey premiered four of her husband's works. Ebon Chronicle (A Negro Epic) and Kaintuck were dedicated to her. One would be hard pressed to find such an invaluable collaborator more neglected.

Final examples of editorial vacuity are the sloppy typesetting at the bottom of page 26, missing copy after the first two words of a sentence (30), and more botched typesetting with sentences dangled and repeated (31 and 32).

William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography nonetheless serves as a useful reference tool for votaries, performers, and scholars who wish to expand their knowledge of Still's works, to know where works can be located, and to know what others may have said about certain works. Of nearly equal importance is the "General Bibliography," which is by far the most complete to be found.
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Author:Nugent, B.A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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